A life of grime has brought rewards for family business Noonan Services

From a 25-year history in domestic and specialised industrial cleaning, maintenance work and general janitorial services, Noonan Services is now branching out into security, writes TOM LYONS

FIGHTING infection in hospital wards, washing down the huge glass windows of the IFSC, cleaning the 'clean-rooms' of high-tech multinationals, scrubbing ferry decks and putting the toilet rolls in the plush holders of Ireland's leading banks might seem the work of a few dozen companies.

But family-owned Noonan Services has more than a rubber gloved finger in all of these pies.

Its core cleaning client list reads like the anatomy of the Celtic Tiger, covering Hewlett-Packard, Dell computers, Aer Rianta in Shannon, the Mater General Hospital, Waterford Regional Hospital, the University of Limerick and a number of AIB and Bank of Ireland facilities.

Only last year's loss of Intel to a lower bidding competitor places a blot on the company's impressive client portfolio.

Noonan had four divisions split between daily/ route cleaning, specialised industrial cleaning, maintenance work and janitorial services.

However, with the acquisition this year of Diamond Security Services for around ?500,000, the company has added an additional arm. Noonan now intends to become a serious Irish challenger in the security sector.

Over the past 25 years, Noonan Services has grown from just 5 staff into one of Ireland's largest private employers with over 5,000 people on its books. Next year the company claims it will take on 200 additional staff in a not untypical year in employment terms.

The company's last filed accounts show turnover in 2001 at ?63.5m, up from ?52m in 2000. The company predicts turnover next year will continue to rise to between ?65m to ?68m.

Between 2000 and 2001 the company added ?500,000 to profits, taking them to ?2.1m while investing heavily in training and equipment. Investment in window cleaning equipment in recent years has also paid dividends, with 75pc-85pc of the windows in the IFSC being cleaned by Noonan Services.

Chief executive Noel Noonan has a modest meeting room adjacent to a down-to-earth office. The paintings on the wall are decent landscapes by his wife and, needless to say, everywhere is spotless.

Mr Noonan says he got into the cleaning business in 1960 with his father who had an agency for selling floor-cleaning equipment.

He set up his own company, Commercial Cleaning Services, in 1965 and ran it until 1969 when he sold out to a British cleaning company. Mr Noonan says he made "just enough money to pay off debts, get married and buy a house".

The UK firm kept him on as regional director in Munster before making him services director for Ireland in 1971.

In the mid-70s he moved to Canada on a three-year contract as services director for Canada for the group.

In 1977, Mr Noonan came back to Ireland determined to start his own business from scratch, based on his newfound knowledge of the multinational "way of doing things" in the computer and manufacturing industry.

Mr Noonan says the big break for the company came early in 1978 when the company landed the contract for B&I Ferries, now Irish Ferries, a contract Noonan still holds.

"B&I had five locations in January 1978. We started in all five and that was just a tremendous chunk of business to start with. You could bring people down there at 5.30pm in the day and it would be like an oilfield, but when the cleaning staff were finished by nine or ten o'clock, the place would be gleaming. They were fantastic staff. If you wanted to show someone what you could do, you'd bring them down before 5.30pm and then back at 10.30pm and let them see it."

The company grew quickly, locking on to a series of massive greenfield cleaning contracts in the emerging pharmaceutical and technology sectors from the late '70s.

However, Noonan eventually faced a major challenge in the form of a credit crunch on the back of rapid expansion.

Mr Noonan recalls "one of the toughest times" as being "the end of 1979/the beginning of 1980. We were finding things quite tough at the time getting money in. From an accountancy point of view, things were not going well. Bernard Lawlor, who is our current financial director and who has been with us now for 22 years, turned things around. Without his input the company definitely wouldn't be the size it is today. He looked after the financial side of it, so I didn't have any worries about going out and building the business."

Mr Lawlor put in place advanced computer systems to deal with the company's massive payroll and produce a full trial balance every four weeks.

A second key business decision was the acquisition and turnaround of the then loss-making International Contract Cleaners in 1998.

This brought in additional turnover of ?5m to the group.

Going forward, Mr Noonan sees the company's core business continuing to be cleaning. However, the company is increasingly "looking around for other opportunities. If you are going in for a client and you can offer other services, that gives you an advantage. The way procurement is going today, the one-stop-shop is really what people are looking for, and so you start adding on the janitorial supplies, start cutting the grass etc."

"In the last twelve months we opened up a security division. It is developing very nicely and we bought one company, Diamond Security Services, which had the security contracts in the Square shopping centre, the Nutgrove shopping centre and a few others like that."

This year the company has won a major security contract in Liffey Valley Shopping Centre in Dublin, as well as the security contract for the new Pavilion's area in the Square, Tallaght.

Mr Noonan, whose daughter Emma recently joined the board after eight years working with the company, attributes the company's success in part to "being a family business and Irish-owned. This has allowed the company retain profits for reinvestment in equipment and training. "Without that we would never have got to the size that we have got to over the last number of years."

Noonan Services was the first Irish company to adopt British standards and train all supervisory staff to that level in the late 1980s.

They were also the first company to have a British Industry of Cleaning Service accredited training area. Like many companies in the services sector, Noonan Services found it difficult to get staff during the economic boom.

"Because it was so difficult to get staff, we've turned to full-time staff through bringing in foreign nationals. At the moment we would have 300-400 foreign nationals. They have been the answer to everyone's problems in service industries whether it's catering, cleaning, security or whatever," Mr Noonan points out.

"We wouldn't be able to fill all the vacancies in any circumstances. There is not a day that goes by that you don't hear of some of the old indigenous industries moving to lower cost economies but a lot of those people, particularly in the high-tech stuff, are not going to want to work in the services sector. For certainly the forseeable future, if we don't have foreign nationals coming into the country, we won't fill those positions."

Noonan Services is currently weighing up its acquisition options, especially in the security sector, and is also considering expanding into the UK.

"We have a young management team in their 30s and early 40s, many of whom have worked their way up through the ranks seeking out new opportunities," Mr Noonan said. " We have invested a lot in equipment that can do other jobs so we can get additional volume growth. We would see a slowing down, possibly on the core side of the business given the economic slowdown but an upturn on other sides, and the security business to compensate that."